Aldo is a disaster waiting to happen. Or to be more accurate, at the start of the book, it has already happened. So the questions in the mind of the reader are simple. How did this happen? Will it get any worse? Aldo is a disaster that infects everyone around him. Aldo somehow manages to instill deep feelings of loyalty in his friends, his family, hos women, despite the fact that he is a disaster. Or is it because he is such a disaster? The only person who can answer that is the reader, because it is the reader who has to decide exactly how Aldo’s mind works.
For instance, Aldo spends a lot of time arguing with God, which is very odd because Aldo does not believe in God. He does switch from saying publicly that he is an atheist to saying that he is an agnostic, but this is because he does not want to explain to others what he actually does believe in. This is probably because he does not know himself. When he was a boy he wanted to believe in Apollo, but could not bring himself to do it. So he drifted into atheism, but still has arguments with God )or, rather, a Voice that may be God).
Aldo is also trying, and failing, to commit suicide. Unlike Fullerton in “The Ecliptic” whatever he tries, he cannot succeed. Unlike “Moristoun”, there is no Buchan to save him from himself. But the fact that he fails time and again to commit suicide is one of the motors of the story. It is how he finds himself on the beach with Liam at the beginning of the book.
And this is the problem that I have with the book. I did not care about Aldo. I care about Liam and Mimi and Stella and Leila and the whole host of characters that assemble around Aldo, but Aldo did not appeal to me. This is not to say that he will not appeal to others, because he will. For many, he will be an essential character explaining the existential misery of life. I do not have that view of life, but I can see that it is a view that will have relevance to so many people and in so many different ways.
So what will attract people to this book. Well, it is written with considerable verve. Steve Toltz has that knack in writing of making you know what is going to happen (or, in this case, what has happened and why Aldo is in such a mess). Somehow all the misadventures are believable, and there is a shocking, ineluctable logic unfolding. It is a bit like being a surfer straddling a wave, not being able to predict whether or not you will stay upright.
Also, people will enjoy the poetry of the language, especially those passages which take on the format of Haiku, or use dialogue as in Shakespeare. There is also a hint of the Book of Job. But all this is done with such a light touch. Toltz obviously believes that the story should be enjoyed for its own sake, and any cultural references that I have picked up are not laboured at all. Toltz is too good a craftsman to make that mistake.
If this review is disjointed it is because that reflects my view of the book. What happens to Aldo is not good. Everything bad that you could possibly imagine happens to Aldo, and then some. He is like Pangloss surviving disaster, or Puck creating it. It is what happens to the people around him that transfixed and fascinated me. Basically, why do they not tell him to take a running jump? But I suppose that is not the thing to say to someone you know is suicidal. And if, like them, you are fond of Aldo it is something that you would not do.
In many ways, this is a book for our times, because it is about the complexities of friendship in a world like ours.